Conference on the Future of Europe: five reasons for moderate pessimism

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Reneta Shipkova
Reneta Shipkova

Doctor of Political Sciences from the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and author of the "What Accounts for the Communication Deficit of the EU: An Exploration into the challenges of Communicating Europe"

The upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe is beginning to take shape. While some may applaud the European Union’s enthusiasm for this timely post-Brexit initiative, it is also important to put alternative viewpoints on the table, especially if they stem from a desire to see the initiative succeed.

First, let’s begin with the unattractive title of the event: ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’. Any political communicator will tell you that the choice of title is crucial. Yet the very term ‘conference’ is bureaucratic, sterile, and – to put it bluntly – boring. It implies the typical, tiresome format involving a plenary, chairpersons, committees, panels, moderators, etc. It is difficult to imagine that such branding would fascinate the public.

Second, the Conference could lead to unintended consequences. It may, in fact, bring about more confusion than understanding and more (Euro)scepticism than (Euro)optimism. It also runs the risk of having people ultimately ‘asking’ for less Europe rather than a “Europe that strives for more”.

Politicians should listen to citizens in an ongoing and continuous process

Instead of uniting citizens, it could further divide them, as their views may largely diverge based on national sensitivities due to lack of a homogeneous European public sphere. Therefore, instead of increasing the democratic legitimacy of the EU and restoring trust in institutions, the Conference might further polarise public opinion by bringing more dividing lines to the fore.

Third, its success depends on the pro-European camp making successful use of inspiring rhetoric. A refreshing communication strategy needs to be elaborated and implemented in all phases of the “#CoFoE” to counter mis- and disinformation, or perhaps even a complete lack of media coverage. The messages coming from the forum have to truly win people’s hearts and minds. Otherwise, more attention will be given to populists and radical politicians who seek to destroy the European Union and who won’t miss a single beat to vocally condemn it.

Fourth, attempts at both top-down and bottom-up dialogue between the EU institutions and its citizens have taken place with varying intensity for decades. Naturally, politicians should listen to citizens in an ongoing and continuous process – not merely limited to one event.

Citizens must first become acquainted with the EU’s institutional structure and competences

Sure, the turnout in the last European elections reached record highs, but this on its own does not mean citizens are seeking a more active role in the process of reshaping the EU. On the contrary, it is unrealistic to expect people who may not even participate in the life of their local community– which they know better and identify with more strongly – to get involved in a deliberation on how the current European construction should be reformed.

And finally, fifth, there is a knowledge deficit. The institutions want citizens to play a leading role throughout the Conference and propose selecting participants at random so as to reflect the diversity in the member states. While citizens’ perspectives should of course be taken on board, their selection should not be conducted in such an arbitrary manner. There ought to be an additional criterion for, at the very least, basic knowledge of governance in the European Union. After all, the EU is a complex political construction with a complex modus operandi.

How will citizens play a leading role in reshaping the EU if they don’t know how the Union functions? How can they decide on the fate of a project they know nothing or very little about? Before putting forward legitimate suggestions and recommendations, citizens must first become acquainted with the EU’s institutional structure and competences. While citizens of diverse backgrounds should be involved, those participating should be knowledgeable about the EU.

For better or for worse, the EU is still an elite project and seems set to remain as such in the near future

Also, if the current title is to be maintained, then it is important to involve all Europeans. Whether we like it or not, this is an initiative on the future of the European Union, not the future of Europe. However, if this wording remains, it is only sensible that the debates also accommodate the voice of non-EU representatives from the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership countries as well.

For better or for worse, the EU is still an elite project and seems set to remain as such in the near future. While some may hope for the day where EU politics becomes a subject taught in schools across Europe, we are not on that level yet. In the meantime, the EU should approach a group that includes representatives of the media, academia, think tanks, NGOs, as well as democratically-elected mandate holders on the European, national, regional and local levels. Only then can fundamental changes be decided upon.

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